Arabic Language Education, Islam and School Reform in Qatar
Lecture by: Rehenuma Asmi, PhD, Columbia University
IIIT, Friday, January 4th, 2013
During the course of her field research on school reform in Qatar, Rehenuma Asmi studied the efforts led by an American consulting firm in Qatar to reduce the reference and relationship of Arabic language education to Islam and the Qur’an in the Qatari curriculum. She connected these efforts to language ideologies rooted in a western history of secularizing language and society.
Rehenuma contended that the project of divesting Arabic of religious overtones has – so far – been largely unsuccessful in Qatar, as Arabic language ideologies in the country are deeply tied to religious sentiment. Most people she interviewed during her ethnographic fieldwork expressed pride in Arabic as the language of the Qur’an. This language ideology that connects Arabic to a sacred text is used by both religious and secular Arabs to defend Arabic from the encroachment of foreign languages. Most Qataris – intellectuals and lay people alike – argue that since Arabic is the official language of the Qatari state, the language of the Qur’an and the language in which much of Arab and Islamic cultural texts have been – and are - written, it is incumbent upon Qataris to “preserve” their language.
Rehenuma argued that Qatari teachers, policy makers and parents need to move beyond preservation of Arabic towards a more effective utilization of Arabic in schools and daily life and for both religious and practical purposes without resorting to the secular language ideology proposed by many western models of education. This will require creating a new Arabic curriculum for Qatari schools that is not dependent upon the notions of “secularizing” language or of “preserving” it.
Rehenuma Asmi completed her doctoral work in the Anthropology and Education program at Columbia University Teachers college. Her research interests are focused on language, religion and schools in the Middle East and in the United States. Her future plans include undertaking a comparative study of English literacy and Arabic literacy, with a focus on Qur’an schools.